Earth Based Finishes for Walls

Kurt demos proper hawk and trowel technique.

I just spent a blissful weekend in the California desert learning earth based finish techniques from adobe master Kurt Gardella. Some observations:

  • Earth plastering is not something you can learn from a book. It takes practice and hands-on experience. In this excellent workshop we got three full days of learning the techniques both for indoor and outdoor surfaces.
Clay, sand, wheat paste and prickly pear juice as an exterior plaster.
  • There’s no simple recipe for earth based finishes since clay and sand have different properties depending on where they come from. You figure out the right proportions of clay/sand/straw by doing test patches. Too much clay and the surface will crack. Too much sand and it wont stick to the wall when you try to trowel it on. Straw can be used to strike a balance. We did a second scratch coat on the first day that ended up cracking badly. We tried to add more sand but that made the plaster too hard to trowel on. The solution was to add more straw, which allowed us to keep a higher clay content in the mix, while preventing the coat from cracking when it dried.
Kurt shows how to work over the final mud plaster coat.
  • Earth based walls have an indescribable, almost metaphysical presence. I had been in the small desert cabin we plastered when it had wood paneling. Once the walls were filled with cob and the plaster coats applied it had a weightiness that’s difficult to describe in words. Some other advantages: it absorbs sound, regulates humidity and is a good insulator. Drywall seems flimsy in comparison. There’s something about traditional plastering techniques (even the lath and plaster of our 1920s house) that give a room a comforting feeling. Of course, plastering with a hawk, trowel and darby take a lot of skill and time which is why they are seldom done anymore. It’s a pity.
Image from japanesetrowels.com
  • The Japanese make the best trowels. And, yes, there is a japanesetrowels.com. The flexible ones are especially nice for finish coats. But they ain’t cheap.
Fermenting prickly pear.
  • Rotted prickly pear cactus juice, combined with some wheat paste, makes an amazing stabilizer when mixed with adobe. The mucilaginous texture of prickly pear gives adobe a stability that helps it resist water penetration. To extract the cactus juice you chop up prickly pear, put it in a bucket with some water, and let it ferment for a few weeks. We used a prickly pear stabilizer in a mix that covered the top of a cob oven.

If you’re interested in learning adobe techniques Kurt Gardella will be coming to LA to teach a class on oven building. More info here. Some plastering will be done in the course of the oven class.  There’s also a nice book on the subject: Using Natural Finishes: A Step-by-Step Guide.

One last thought: Working earth plaster by day and sleeping in a cozy desert cabin with a copy of the Odyssey is just about as perfect a life as I could hope for. Thank you Meredith and Doug for your hospitality!

Peat-free Planting Mix Recipe With Coconut Coir

Nancy’s coconut coir-based planting mix. Here she’s doing the squeeze test, which we talk about below.

From an environmental perspective peat moss is a nightmare. Mining of this material is unsustainable, contributes to global warming and destroys habitat for many plants and animals. But, for starting seeds, we’ve used it for years. Our friend Nancy Klehm taught us recently how to make a seed starting mix with coconut coir instead of peat moss. Thanks, Nancy! Here’s how to make it:

Ingredients

Watering the coir brick to break it up. Once saturated, this brick will expand to fill the tub.

COIR:  A fibrous material made from coconut husks. It is sold in compressed bricks which expand greatly when wet. It is pH neutral and has no nutrients. Its role in planting mix is to hold moisture. Coir is the environmentally correct alternative to peat. Peat is mined out of peat bogs, which is a disruption of an ecosystem. Coir, meanwhile, is a by-product of the coconut industry. Of course, it has to be shipped in from the tropics, so is not particularly sustainable in that way. Nothing is perfect. So, if you have peat on hand or prefer peat you may use it in this recipe instead of coir, just substitute it, 1:1.

PERLITE: Perlite is a volcanic glass which, upon being subjected to extremely high temperatures (850C +), puffs–sort of like popcorn, or a Pop Rock. Obviously, though its origins are natural, it is an industrial product, but it is very useful for making soil fluffy and light. You will recognize it as the “white stuff” that you see in the soil of nursery plants. As it is essentially a rock, it is a neutral player in the mix. It simply keeps things light.

Note: you should avoid breathing perlite dust when working with it.

Store-bought worm castings. Homegrown, of course, are the preferred alternative!

WORM CASTINGS: Castings bring healthy microbial activity to the mix, as well as balanced nutrients and trace minerals. In addition, they hold moisture well. They are invaluable players in this mix. You can buy worm castings at the nursery, or you can keep a worm bin and harvest your own. Store bought and homegrown castings have very different textures–the store bought tends to be very fine, almost a black powder, whereas castings fresh out of the worm bin have more of a open, grainy, soil like texture– and this effects the recipe.  

For the purposes of this recipe, we will assume you are using fine-grained, store bought castings. If you have your own castings, congratulations! But you will have to play with this recipe a little bit. You will use a little less coir, because your castings (probably) have loft or springiness of their own. We can’t tell you exactly how much less coir, because castings vary.  Start, say, with half the recommended quantity of coir in the recipe below, and then test the mix, and add more coir as necessary. The proof will come in the squeezing. Do the hand test described in the instructions below. If the mix won’t hold form when you squeeze it, you have too much coir, if the clump you make doesn’t break easily, there isn’t enough. Again, see below.

Quantity

This recipe makes about 4 gallons of planting mix. To make more or less, just use the same ratios. 

Equipment

We like to mix ours up in 5 gallon bucket, but you can do this on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow or whatever you like.

You will also need something big, like a cement mixing tray or tub to soak the coir brick in. Remember, one brick swells into to a big bag’s worth of wet coir. If you don’t use all the coir, you can store it in a plastic bag. If it dries out, it can be re-hydrated.

You will also need a measuring tool. For this 4 gallon recipe you will need a quart measure to scoop the materials out of the bags–like a big yogurt/cottage cheese container, or something with same volume. Again, you can make as little or as much as you want using the same proportions, so your measure could be a 1 cup scoop or a 3 gallon bucket.

Prep

Prepare to make the mix by soaking the coir in a large tub of water for maybe a half hour or so. Break it up as it expands. It will drink up a lot of water and grow proportionately huge. Add water if necessary so that it all gets evenly moistened. When finished, it should be wet but springy, like a wrung-out sponge.

Put it together

3 quarts/parts worm castings (store bought, see notes above for homegrown)
8 quarts/parts coir
4 quarts/ parts perlite

Measure out the worm castings and coir into a five gallon bucket and toss them together with your hands until they are evenly and thoroughly mixed. This mix should be moist and dark, again with a nice “wrung-out” sponge level of dampness.

Only when those two are mixed should you add the perlite. It’s easier to mix the perlite in last–trust us. Mix the perlite into the coir/casting blend until it is also evenly distributed–the mix should be absolutely consistent–no patches or clumps should be visible. You might find it helpful to dump the mix back and forth between two five gallon buckets to speed mixing.

After it is mixed, pause to analyze the texture. Gather up a fistful, squeeze it hard and open your hand. The mix will form a ball in your fist, but if you turn your hand over and drop the ball a few inches, it will break easily. Overall the mix should be moist, light and springy. We can’t emphasize that enough. Moist, but not soggy. Springy, not heavy.

If the mix seems a little clumpy/dense/heavy don’t be afraid to add another part of perlite. It is better to err on the side of too much perlite than too little. Lightness is everything.

Measuring into the buckets with a quart-sized yogurt container. If you have two buckets, you can pour the ingredients back and forth between them to speed mixing. Otherwise, just toss the ingredients with your hands in one bucket.

Notes on growing

The seedling feeds itself from its seed body up through the formation of the first set of leaves, the cotyledons. After that, it is dependent on the nutrients in the soil. Your seedlings will be fine in this planting mix until around the time of the full unfurling of their first true leaves (the ones that come after the cotyledons). At this time–or no later than the opening of the second set of true leaves–you will want to feed your seedlings by watering them with some kind of diluted organic fertilizer of your choice. Do this maybe once a week until you transplant them.

Feeding accelerates root growth which is even more important to plant health than leaf growth. It prepares the plants to thrive after transplanting.

For most seedlings this means the first feeding would occur about 3-4 weeks after planting. The seedlings should be transplanted by 6 weeks of age–either into the garden or into bigger pots with real soil.

Recycling

You can re-use this mix to plant more seedlings, but you’ll want to recharge it by adding in more worm castings. Just dump out your seed starting trays, mix it all up and let it air a bit. Also, the coir breaks down over time, so you find you need to add more of that as well. And if you add enough castings and coir, you’ll probably want to add more perlite to balance it. There’s no recipe–you’ll have to use your intuition to create a consistency that resembles the original mix.

Or you could compost it and start fresh. It’s safe to compost perlite, as long as you don’t mind having little white perlite bits all over your yard!

This is the surface of the finished mix. It’s so light and moist that it has holes in the surface. Note the even integration of the three ingredient: no lumps or patches left unmixed.

Options
 
Another planting mix option is part coir and part compost. This is provided your compost is of the best quality–bagged compost from the nursery is not good enough. This is a hard area to generalize about because compost varies wildly in both quality and consistency, but you’d want to use lovely, lively, springy, sweet smelling compost.

Gardening guru John Jeavons starts his seeds in mix which is 1 part compost and 1 part garden soil–soil dug from the same beds the seedlings will be going into. This way the seedlings are already accustomed to the local soil and don’t go through so much shock upon transplanting. It also makes his garden a “closed loop,” meaning he doesn’t have to buy anything or bring any materials in from the outside. This saves money, keeps things local and prevents the accidental importing of diseases.

Using compost and soil works for him because he’s got top-notch compost and rich, fluffy soil–the kind of soil you can plunge you hand into up to the wrist without meeting resistance. This should be a goal for all of us to work toward, but in the meanwhile, while we’re developing that soil in our own yards, we’ve got perlite, worm castings and coir!

Cheap and Natural Handsoap–and a rant

This is just a quick tip. If your family prefers liquid soap to bar soap, one easy way to avoid all the creepy, expensive, colored, perfumed, anti-bacterial liquid soaps on the market  (and all the plastic they come in) is to just use liquid castile soap to wash your hands.  Ah, but yes–liquid castile soap is runny. Indeed. I can hear the complaints already. 
The way around that problem is to use one of them fancy-schmancy foaming soap pumps. You can buy them at specialty retailers, but it’s probably cheaper to buy one at the supermarket, use up the soap and then start refilling with liquid castile soap. The one in our bathroom is an old Method pump and is still working fine after three years.
The secret of the soap formula used in foaming pumps is that it’s super-diluted. It has to to diluted because full strength soap clogs the pump.  It’s kind of a scam, when you think about it, that when you buy a foaming pump you pay as much or more for diluted soap than regular liquid soap. However, the dilution factor works perfectly with castile soap. As Dr. Bronner says:  Dilute! Dilute! Dilute!
Dilute your castile soap quite a bit for use in a foam pump. Start by filling the dispenser no more than 1/4 full of soap and then filling it the rest of the way with water. See how that works for you. You may prefer it a little stronger or a little weaker. 
In any case, you’ll pay less for each full dispenser of soap, and you’ll have the comfort of knowing your soap is all-natural, safe and free of additives.
***
Rant Warning:
Speaking of which, I saw the most appalling thing in the grocery store today and I had to rant about it: The Lysol® Healthy Touch® No-Touch Hand Soap System.
This is a twelve dollar, battery operated (4 AA) soap pump fitted with an electric eye, so it spits out soap when you pass your hand under the nozzle. It dispenses Lysol anti-bacterial soap, which comes packed into special cartridges–meaning you can’t fill the dispenser with whatever soap you like. The tagline for this product is, “Never touch a germy soap pump again!” 
I love the double-speak of Healthy Touch/No-Touch. Is the underlying logic that no touch is healthy? Time to evacuate to our plastic bubbles!
Three cranky thoughts on this product:
1) First, the obvious. When you touch a soap dispenser, you are about to wash your hands. When you wash you hands, you kill all the germs. It doesn’t matter how “germy” the dispenser is–unless you plan to suck on it. This device is about as needful as evening wear for hogs.
2) In 2002, at the urging of the AMA, the FDA evaluated anti-bacterial soaps. The AMA was concerned that these anti-bacterial soaps (i.e. Triclosan-based products*) may be breeding super-bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics. The FDA’s findings were, as reported at American Medical News:
“Soaps and lotions that include antibacterial agents have no benefit over ordinary soap and water, but more research is needed to allay or substantiate concern that these substances may be leading to increased rates of antibiotic resistance.”
So anti-bacterial soaps are proven to be no better than regular soap and water and maybe, just maybe–there’s still research to be done–they could be disastrously worse. Why roll the dice on this one? It just doesn’t make any sense. For me, this makes anti-bacterial soaps about as needful as evening wear for hogs accessorized with a doomsday device.
3) And finally, the wastefulness of it all makes me cry. Note the the cheap plastic shell and electronic innards assembled in Chinese factories–not to mention the big-ass clamshell package it all comes in. How long will the average unit be employed? A year? If does last more than a year, how long will Lysol keep making those plastic cartridges?  Oh, and joy! We’ll have more toxic batteries to figure out how to dispose of–all so we can wash our hands.
Arggghhhh! I’ve got to go visit the chickens or something. My knickers are all in a twist.
Thanks for listening.
*I know I have alcohol gel fans in the readership and I don’t believe those were part of the AMA’s concerns. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

How to Make a Mosaic Stepping Stone

Not liking the pre-fab stepping stone options out there, I decided to take matters into my own hands and make one with glass mosaic tile. It’s easy to do using what’s called the “indirect method” in which you press the tiles onto a piece of contact paper. You then use that sheet of tile to cast your new, custom stepping stone.

The first step is to come up with a design, either hand drawn or printed out from the computer. Since you’ll be working in reverse, you flip your design left-right. I chose the mercury, the symbol of transformation (it seemed like a good metaphor for a garden). No need to flip this particular image, of course. When sizing the design I like to keep in mind the size of the tiles I’ll be using so that any lines are about one tile wide.

I transferred the design to a piece of clear contact paper. Next, I taped the contact paper, with the sticky side up. to a piece of melamine coated fiberboard. Melamine is a good material to use because it helps it has a very smooth, even surface and is unlikely to warp. In addition, using melamine for the sides of the mold helps it release more easily. I built this mold out a piece of a discarded Ikea bookshelf.

While I was cutting the bottom piece, I cut four additional small pieces of the bookshelf to form the sides of the mold.The dimensions of these pieces determine the size of your stepping stone. I made a simple box by joining the pieces with screws at the corners. If you wish, you can spray the sides of the mold with WD-40 to help release the mold later. I forgot to do this, but it released fine anyway

For the mosaic itself, I used glass mosaic tile leftover from an old project. The glass picks up reflections and shimmers on a sunny day. The drawback is that it’s pretty expensive. The brand we’ve used in the past is Bisazza. You can also, of course, use broken plates, pebbles, pieces of metal or tile left over from other jobs.

To cut glass tile I use a pair of tile nippers. I like to break the square tiles into four small pieces to simulate the irregular look of ancient mosaics. I wear a pair of safety glasses and do the cutting in a box to keep shards of glass from flying around. I also do this outside or in the garage so little shards of glass don’t end up in our house. Once cut, I press the little tile pieces against the sticky side of the contact paper–face down, or “good side” down.  The sticky paper holds them in place.

When you’re finished sticking all the tiles down, it’s time to mix up some concrete. I used one part Portland cement to three parts builder’s sand. I poured my concrete into the mold and used some chicken wire as reinforcement. I just cut the wire into a rough square that would fit in the mold, poured half the concrete, placed the wire in the mold, then finished the pour. 

Once cast, I put the stepping stone in a garbage bag to slow down the curing process. After a couple of days I carefully removed the mold. One advantage of this technique is that it’s “self-grouting”: the concrete should flow between the tiles during the pour. It worked well, but I will have to do a small amount of grouting to fix a few spots the concrete did not reach.  

You could also use this same reverse method to make designs that could be pressed into a mortar bed when tiling, say, a kitchen or bathroom.

For more garden mosaic ideas see a previous post we did on the subject that includes a link to the stunning pebble mosaic work of Jeffery Bale.

Clean your bathroom without resorting to Poison

We talk about non-toxic housecleaning in almost every lecture we do, and we cover it in both books, but I can’t remember if we’ve talked about cleaning the bathroom on this blog. We did cover how to clean kitchen sink fairly recently, but I’m not sure what else we’ve done.  Of course, I know my regular Root Simple readers are so hardcore they could give me tips in this area, but I thought it would be good to cover non-toxic cleaning for new readers and folks crawling the interwebs for information.

It’s a really, really important topic. There’s no simpler way to remove toxins from your immediate environment than switching out your cleaning supplies. We call this “low hanging fruit.” There’s lots of things in this world that you may not like, but which you can’t control. Housecleaning, however, is totally within your power to change. Cleaning this way also saves you money and cabinet space, reduces plastic waste and not least of all, protects our waters from chemical contamination.

Just say no to chemical warfare in your home.

It all starts with the Holy Trinity of Non Toxic Household Cleaning:

  1. White vinegar*
  2. Baking soda (sodium carbonate)
  3. Liquid castile soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s

Get yourself these things, some empty spray bottles and rags, and you’re in business. You don’t need anything else.

Prep:

Fill one spray bottle halfway full of white vinegar. Fill it the rest of the way with water. This is your all purpose wipe down spray, aka the 50/50 spray

Take another empty spray bottle and pour about a tablespoon of liquid soap into the bottom. Fill it up with water. This is called “soapy water.”

Yep. This is why we make the big bucks.

That’s it. You’ll find other recipes which are more involved. Some people like to put a squirt of soap in their vinegar water. Sure, why not? Other people make rather elaborate concoctions of a little of this and a little of that. I’ve found that simple is best, because 1) I can’t be bothered to do more and 2) I’m not sure any more elaboration is necessary.

Cleaning ain’t rocket science, and it’s not like I’m prepping my bathroom for surgery. Stuff just needs to be wiped down to remove dust and other surface dirt. Whatever I clean, however I clean it, will get dirty the next time it’s used, so why all the struggle and germ phobia?

All cheap white vinegar is the same, but I like El Pato brand because of the duck on the label. Why doesn’t El Pato make t-shirts?

The vinegar spray is great because it doesn’t leave any residue behind (which soap does), shines up things fairly well, disinfects to some extent because it is an acid, and deodorizes as well. Yes, it smells like vinegar, but you get used to that. You begin to associate that smell with the idea of clean. The scent goes away when it dries, and it takes any lingering odors with it.

The bathroom sink

Work the right side, the left side is yet to be done. See the hard water deposits forming around the base of the faucet? That’s on its way out.

The bathroom sink doesn’t get nearly as dirty as the kitchen sink, at least not in our house. See my post on the kitchen sink* if you have a really grotty sink that needs bleaching. In the bathroom, all I do is spray down the sink with the vinegar/water spray. Generously. Regular use of it will help prevent hard water deposits from forming around the faucets. Spray and wipe. I find using a clean, dry rag gives the best polish to the sink.

If you already have hard water deposits around your faucets or elsewhere, apply full strength vinegar to that area. If it runs off (depends on how your sink is shaped) try soaking rags or paper towels with vinegar and lay those over the deposits. Let the vinegar work its magic for a half hour or so and come back. You should be able to scrub off the deposits now. If you still have trouble, trying applying the vinegar hot.

To clean scummy build-up out of the sink, follow your vinegar wipe-down with a generous sprinkle of baking soda. Scrub with a damp cloth or a nylon sponge. Rinse.

Bathtub/Shower

The advancing line of clean

Here I prefer to use soapy water spray instead of the vinegar spray, though you could try the vinegar. I find that soapy water cuts through soap-scum build up quite well, perhaps because like dissolves like?
To clean our clawfoot tub, what I always do first is spray the whole interior with soapy water, then sprinkle over that a generous coating of baking soda, focusing on the spots that look grungy. I scrub these areas first, using an old nylon net bath puff, which is my favorite tub cleaning tool. A nylon sponge or a rag would work fine, too, though. The secret here is to use not so much soapy water–just enough to wet the surface, not enough to puddle. The baking soda should be just damp when you’re scrubbing with it. If it’s too wet, it’s not effective.

After I scrub the scummy parts, I wipe down the whole tub and rinse.

Note: I have no proof, but I do believe that big brand soaps (and their knockoffs) make more soap scum than natural soaps, and that scum is harder to remove than what’s left behind by natural soaps. They are definitely not good for your skin. When you switch your cleaning products over, switch over your bar soap to a nice, natural soap. Maybe something from the farmers’ market, or maybe even something you make yourself. Or yes, the ubiquitous Dr. Bronner’s is fine, too.

Toilet

Plunging the bowl to reduce water level. Cat heads are not recommended for plunging, as they are not bristly enough.

First thing I do is start scrubbing the bowl with the toilet brush, just using the bowl water. It’s amazing how much plain water and a scrub brush can do. I plunge as I scrub, with the goal of lowering the level of the water in the bowl down to a minimum. If you can’t make this happen by scrubbing & plunging, then pour a bucket of water in the bowl–that will lower the water level, too.

That first scrub takes care of a lot of the basic build up. Next, soak the bottom of the bowl in straight vinegar to remove stains and the-lord-knows-what that collects down there. Take that big cheap gallon jug of vinegar and refill the bowl to the usual water line with a couple of cups of vinegar. I like to pour the vinegar all around the sides of bowl to give those surfaces a good antiseptic dousing. Then let the vinegar sit at the bottom of the bowl for about a half hour. When you come back, give a final swish and flush.

While the vinegar is doing its work in the bowl, spray the entire toilet from top to bottom–back, lid, seat, base– with the 50/50 vinegar water, and then wipe it down with a rag. This is plenty sufficient to clean those parts, and if you have a seat/lid that shows water spots (like ours, because it’s black) just be sure to wipe those parts dry and you’ll have no spots.

If you have rust stains under the rim, pure vinegar (how did you guess I’d say that?) will help. Soak paper towels or rags in vinegar and plaster them under the rim and leave them as long as you can. When you come back, you should be able to scrub those stains away. Lemon juice would also work well.

Vinegar soaked rags under the rim, working on the rust stains. Apologies for the terrible picture!

Mirror

Because I’m way too lazy to make up a different formula or even pick up a different spray bottle, I use the 50/50 vinegar spray on the bathroom mirror. Spray on, buff off with a dry cloth. Works fine. Same goes for our mystery metal Ikea garbage can.

(Amendment as per Donna’s comment below: I should say that you can clean your mirrors with water alone. Donna also recommends newspaper for polishing, which is a fine technique. All in all, you just need to get windows or mirrors slightly wet, then polish them with whatever you have on hand that is clean and dry. I use the vinegar spray because it is a handy moisture delivery device.)

Floor

Again, all you need is vinegar–about a half cup in a bucket of hot water, or more like a full cup for a big bucket or a dirtier job. Mop. No rinsing required. I use this on tile, linoleum, vinyl flooring and even, with a barely damp mop, wood floors.

If I’m in an expansive mood I’ll add a few drops of essential oil to the bucket so I can Sniff n’ Mop.

* Warning Regarding Vinegar: Vinegar is apparently not recommended for use on stone surfaces–like granite counter tops or stone composite floors. I don’t have any personal experience with these surfaces, but I’ve read that this is so. Vinegar is a mild acid (5%), and acid can etch stone. It’s hard to imagine vinegar etching stone, especially when diluted, but it’s best to be cautious. The effects might build up over time. As always, ask the manufacturer of the stone surface, if you can.

Also, if you leave full strength vinegar on a finished metal surface for long enough, you might end up dulling it. I’ve never had a problem wiping down my fixtures and appliances with 50/50 blend, but once I soaked a sink head in a bag of hot vinegar overnight. My goal was to remove mineral deposits in the faucet. It worked, but it also dulled the head of the faucet. You can always rinse your faucets off after cleaning with vinegar, just to be sure. Rinse with water and then dry with a cloth and you’ll have no spots. Until someone uses the sink.

* I just realized that I posted that “how to clean your sink” post exactly one year ago to the day. Something about Feb. 13th makes me think about cleaning, apparently. Must be my romantic nature.

Phoebe, the implacable bathroom supervisor, says “Scrub, you lazy swab! Damn your eyes!”